BY JOE GEISER
AND CECELIA MORIARITY
PRICE, UtahNineteen members of UMWA Local 2176, and eight company executives and foremen, were killed by a fire that started Dec. 19, 1984, at the Wilberg mine outside Orangeville, Utah. The mine is located in the main coal-producing region in the southeastern part of the state.
The bodies of the 26 men and one woman remain inside the mine despite attempts to rescue them. On December 23 rescue teams were evacuated from the mine on the order of federal mine inspectors as explosive gases reached a dangerous level. On December 29 the mine portals were sealed in an effort to bring under control the fire that has raged since December 19.
World production record
The dead miners were all working in a section of the mine where a longwall, the most modern and mechanized machine for producing coal, was in use. The company was attempting to achieve a 24-hour world production record at the time of the fire.
Emery spokesman Robert Henrie refused to confirm that the company was pushing for a world record, but said that even if this were true, It is totally unwarranted to suggest that an attempt for a re-cord led to this tragedy.
UMWA members, widows, and other community residents here are in general agreement with UMWA International Pres. Richard Trumka, who said, When a coal operator becomes so concerned with setting short-term coal-production records, safety is made an afterthought and miners are needlessly killed.
Few miners or other community residents here believe the companys story that the fire was an unpredictable accident. They blame Emery Mining Corp. for recklessly endangering lives and disregarding safety in its drive to boost coal production and profits.
The union victims of this drive were the following: Bert Bennett, age 37; Ricci Camberlango, 26; Curtis Carter, 29; Robert Christensen, 32; Gordon Conover, 24; Randy Curry, 31; Owen Curtis, 31; Roger Ellis, 28; Brian Howard, 23; Gary Jennings, 33; Lee Johansen, 35; Joel Nevitt, 33; Kelly Riddle, 28; Lynn Robinson, 28; Ray Snow, 27; John Waldoch, 22; Lester Walls, Jr., 23; Nanette Wheeler, 33, the one woman killed; and John Wilsey, 31. The men leave more than 40 children, as well as widows, surviving them.
Emery Mining has tried to cover up its responsibility for the disaster, claiming the fire probably started as a result of a mechanical failure on the conveyor-belt system that brings coal out of the mine.
However, at a press conference December 28 at UMWA Local 2176 headquarters in Orangeville, eyewitness testimony was presented by two union members who discovered the fire. Their story contradicts the company version.
What union members saw
Speaking at the press conference were UMWA members Alex Tidwell and Clinton Price. They are beltmen, whose job is to maintain the conveyor belt and keep the area clean of coal dust accumulation that could lead to a fire.
According to Tidwell and Price, the fire broke out near an electrical cable in the fresh-air tunnel leading to the longwall section, not on the conveyor belt.
In the Wilberg mine, the power system is equipped with safety circuits that should shut off power if cables are overloaded, damaged, or catch fire. But once the fire started, and the cable exploded, the power stayed on, the two unionists reported. They said the company may have jumped the cable, a common practice.
Wilberg miners are familiar with this practice, since the company regularly overloads the electrical system to increase production. Often a miner is assigned to repeatedly turn on the machinery every time the safety circuits shut it down because of overload.
The two men said the phone nearest the fire was not working so they were unable to immediately call for help. As the fire spread to the conveyor belt motor, an automatic foam system that should have been activated to put out the fire failed to work. It just bubbled, they said.
One of the miners finally found a working phone to call in an alarm. They also attempted to put out the fire but the flames quickly spread throughout the area, forcing them to leave.
Govt inspectors role
Just a week before the fire, the federal governments Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) had inspected the Wilberg mine. Faulty equipment and other safety violations are supposed to be detected during such inspections.
Earlier last fall, MSHA inspectors had found caved-in coal and rock blocking an escape route. Instead of ordering Emery to clean up the cave-in, MSHA issued the company a variance, which is a permit to keep operating despite a safety violation. The union cannot appeal a variance.
Because the cave-in was never removed, there were only two instead of the normal three exits available to miners in the area. The fire broke out on one escape route and quickly burned through to a second exit, blocking both. The third escapeway was blocked by the cave-in. The miners on the longwall were thus trapped.
UMWA members had been discussing the cave-in prior to the fire. One person said the area was a potential tomb if anything ever happened requiring a quick escape.
At a press conference December 24, the UMWA District 22 president, Michael Dalpiaz, called the deaths of the 27 trapped in the mine needless. UMWA International Safety Director Joe Main, who also spoke, said, these things dont just happen. Usually when fires or explosions occur, safety rules have not been complied with or they have been altered. He mentioned in particular the inadequate number of escape routes at Wilberg.
Such safety violations are only part of the assault on miners health and safety that has been carried out by the company in recent years. The Wilberg mine has had one of the highest accident rates in the country. Safety jobs have been eliminated through layoffs, and a speedup bonus plan has been introduced that further endangers the workers.
Emerys lack of concern for miners health and safety was demonstrated last fall, when it refused to sign the national coal contract ratified by UMWA members. The company insisted on ending its payments into the 1950 UMWA Health and Retirement Fund. Miners at Emerys Wilberg, Deer Creek, and Des-Bee-Dove mines went on strike for a month, finally forcing the company to accept a contract similar to the national agreement other companies had signed.
Company cover-up on safety
After the fire broke out at Wilberg December 19, the company tried to give the impression that emergency procedures at the mine were in good working order. It released statements implying that the trapped miners would be able to save themselves if they made use of safety measures provided by the company.
For example, Emery held out the hope that the miners could escape from the fire to a logical safe retreat area 1,500 feet from where they were working. Emery spokesman Henrie said that there were emergency supplies, including oxygen tanks, throughout the mine and each miner can carry a self-rescue unit.
But the logical safe retreat area he referred to is simply a small, empty space left from digging tunnels. It was never designed for safety purposes.
The oxygen tanks in the mine are not for miners to use in breathing they are used to run acetylene torches to cut metal.
The oxygen-supplying self-rescue units Henrie referred to are not generally carried by miners; they are too bulky and heavy. Instead these are stored at various points in the mine, as much as 1,000 feet away from work areas.
When rescue teams discovered the bodies of 25 of the victims, none were in the logical safe retreat area. A number of union members were found dead at the coal face where they had been working, indicating they never had a chance to try to escape. Another victim was found in the kitchen near the work area. Most of the bosses were found near some diesel trucks used to transport workers.
Many Wilberg miners report they have not participated in a fire drill for years, despite the fact that these are required periodically by law to make sure all workers know how to use the escape routes. Many say they have had no special fire-fighting or evacuation training beyond how to put on a self-rescue unit. It had become common practice at Wilberg for safety meetings to be no more than company personnel asking miners if they knew how to evacuate the mine in case of fire. The miners would then be asked to sign a statement that they had received escape training.
Rescue efforts by miners
In spite of all the obstacles created by the company, miners did everything they could to try to save their trapped co-workers, beginning the day the fire started. UMWA members on the shift when the fire broke out, as well as those who arrived soon after for the midnight shift, volunteered to carry out whatever tasks were necessary to aid the specially trained rescue teams that were brought in. Some miners worked on fire-fighting and rescue units while others helped load materials or operate rock dusters to reduce coal dust. Many miners worked long stretches, sleeping at the mine or returning after short breaks.
UMWA members worked with urgency in the hopes of saving the lives of those trapped underground, risking their own lives in the process. One miner who manned a fire hose described the underground blaze as having a roar like a blast furnace. He worked on a team building walls, called stoppings, to try to cut off the air that fed the fire. The fire spread around the stoppings almost as soon as they had been built, he said.
Miners morale remained high, until everyone learned that the rescue teams had located 25 bodies and that no hope remained for the other two.
At the same time, many miners were critical of the slow, disorganized manner in which the company carried out the rescue operation. Some miners suspect Emery may have wanted the fire to keep burning, in order to destroy evidence.
People in the coal mining communities of Carbon and Emery rallied to meet the needs of the fire-fighting and rescue teams. Local community organizations were flooded with offers of help. Calls also came from anxious friends and relatives from around the country trying to find out if loved ones were trapped in the fire and if they could do anything to help.
The British National Union of Mineworkers, which has been on strike for 10 months, called from London to express concern for the miners, their friends, and families. The Australian miners union also called.
While solidarity like this was pouring in from workers around the world, Emery Mining showed nothing but callous disregard for the victims and their families. The companys press conferences continually doled out deceptive, self-serving statements designed to make the company look good and raise false expectations. Before the mine had been sealed, the company wouldnt even tell widows whether it would pay for their husbands funerals. Emery made a big show of paying for plane tickets for relatives flying into Utah, but refused to do anything to aid the families once they were here.
Union members organize relief efforts
It was the UMWA and its supporters that took over the relief efforts for the families. UMWA Local 2176 set up an information center in Orangeville with the help of the UMWA district and volunteers. The Lady Coal Miners of Utah joined the efforts. This is a women miners support team and the local chapter of the national Coal Employment Project, which helps women get and keep mining jobs.
Once the 25 bodies had been found, the UMWA and Lady Coal Miners worked with the union families to help arrange the details of getting the miners paychecks, removing their personal belongings from the mine, making appointments for social security benefits, and finally, contacting the families to inform them that the mine had been sealed. The Lady Coal Miners helped staff the UMWA district office, taking phone calls from widows and other relatives and getting out needed information.
Unionists arranged transportation from the airports in Grand Junction and Salt Lake City for relatives flying in. A local car dealer loaned new cars to the union to make the trips. Volunteers drove the families while they were in town and then back to the airport.
Volunteers also organized the preparation and delivery of food to the rescue and fire-fighting teams at the mine. The food was cooked by community residents or donated by local restaurants, fast food outlets, and convenience stores.
Several Wilberg miners who are women worked long hours at the mine making coffee and preparing lunches for the rescue teams underground. The company would not allow the women miners to participate in the underground teams.
On December 26, a memorial service for the 27 people killed in the fire was held in Castle Dale, Utah, sponsored by the Mormon church. It was attended by almost 2,000 people, including miners and bosses. Miners were urged by those on the platform to put the Wilberg disaster behind them. One of the featured speakers was Gordon Hinckley, a high official of the Mormon church who also sits on the board of Emerys parent company, Utah Power & Light. Hinckley called the mine fire an accident, comparing it to hurricanes, volcano eruptions, and earthquakes.
After the service was over, one miner said, This was no accident. This was manmade.
Wilberg mine was notorious for safety violations
33 miners, rescuers die in blast at China mine
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